When Jillian Lee Dempsey was interviewing for faculty positions across the country several years ago, she was thrilled to find that Carolina’s senior faculty members were uniquely supportive of her.
“They were invested in my success,” said Dempsey, now a UNC-Chapel Hill assistant professor of chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences who examines the challenges associated with solar energy conversion. “And I thought, ‘If they want me to succeed at the interview, imagine how helpful they’ll be in getting tenure.’”
Now in her fifth year at Carolina, Dempsey said that sense she had during the interview has been spot on — and she credits those senior faculty members for her successes, including winning the prestigious Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering in 2015 and the Sloan Research Fellowship this year.
She is just one example of how dedicated mentorship and cross-disciplinary collaboration combined with stellar academic facilities have created an environment at Carolina that has emerging faculty leaders thriving and receiving some of the nation’s most prestigious awards for early and mid-level faculty. Those honors include the Packard and Sloan fellowships, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Faculty Scholar and the National Science Foundation Early Career Development Award.
“Attracting, developing and retaining premiere faculty talent is a must for Carolina to continue forward as a leading global public research university,’’ said Chancellor Carol L. Folt. “These prestigious awards help us accomplish this goal and support the ground-breaking work of our young faculty members who are creating next-generation research approaches to solve global challenges.
“Having inspiring faculty scientists, explorers and creators in our classrooms and labs ignites student dreams. For a student intent upon following their passion to make an impact in the world, there is no substitution for the opportunity to work alongside a faculty member who is making world- and life-changing discoveries.”
Amy Gladfelter, an associate professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, is another example of the emerging faculty talent pipeline at Carolina. She has discovered intricate mechanisms by which cells divide and how they organize themselves during the process of division. She was among 84 faculty scholars from 43 institutions to become an HHMI Faculty Scholar in 2016 — the first year of the award. She came to Carolina from Dartmouth College earlier this year, and part of what enticed her to Chapel Hill, she said, was the diverse faculty who are open to collaboration.
“There is a sense of community here that really exudes generosity and warmth that is not common to find,” Gladfelter said. “I was also drawn to the desire to be excellent and a sense of mission that was tied to being innovative in research.”
University faculty have benefited significantly from state-of-the-art research facilities that have come online after a campus-wide construction boom funded by a series of public-private investments. The improvements were made possible in part by North Carolinians’ approval of a $3.1 billion bond referendum for higher education in 2000 that benefitted all UNC campuses and the state’s community colleges. In addition to funding provided by the bonds, the University leveraged state appropriations with investments from non-state sources and private gifts. More than 100 projects spanning more than a decade added new buildings and renovated others. They include Genome Sciences Building and the Carolina Physical Science Complex, which houses the departments of applied physical sciences, chemistry, computer science, marine sciences, mathematics and physics and astronomy.
“The research spaces and lab facilities that were created as part of the first phase of the science complex really separate us from other institutions,” said Kevin Guskiewicz, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Our modern facilities encourage interdisciplinary research, which is what we need to address the challenging problems of our time. Rising stars in research know that this is the kind of environment they need to succeed, and they are finding it here at Carolina. Completing the last phase of the science complex is now a major priority, so we can continue to excel in emerging areas of convergent science being conducted across many departments on our campus.”
High-quality faculty research has helped the University attract almost $1 billion a year for research, ranked sixth nationally in federal research and development spending. Research at Carolina and the innovative startup companies it has produced contribute roughly $2.6 billion annually to North Carolina’s economy.
And it has produced an increasing number of awards for Carolina’s researchers.
In each of the past five years, a Carolina faculty member has won a Packard Fellowship.
Fourteen faculty members have won Sloan Research Fellowships in the same time period (including three in 2016, marking the first time more than two Carolina faculty members have won the award in the same year).
And in 2016, eight young faculty researchers received CAREER awards — the most CAREER award winners in a single year for Carolina.
The Office of Research Development, under the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, has made expansion of NSF research funding and projects a goal for the University and has helped support young faculty in their pursuit of awards. The office recently created an on-campus learning community to connect prospective awardees with senior NSF-funded faculty for proposal support and peer mentoring.
These programs helped support young faculty, like Dempsey, Gladfelter and dozens of others pursue and earn awards.
“Senior colleagues, especially in my division, have been very selfless in their commitment to my success,” Dempsey said. “Lending advice in writing grants and recruiting students and donating time to meet with me frequently, checking in to see how I’m doing and giving feedback have been very important to me.”
And important to the University, as well.
“I am very proud of the steps Carolina has taken to pave the way for the successes and accomplishments of our rising stars,” said Terry Magnuson, vice chancellor for research at UNC-Chapel Hill. “We are investing in their potential with a strong commitment to mentoring faculty, providing state-of-the-art facilities and forming creative hubs where cross-disciplinary teams solve major problems together. These investments create an environment where scientists and investigators thrive.”
By Will Rimer, UNC Office of Communications and Public Affairs